Poor Otis, dead and gone
Left me here to sing his song
Pretty little girl with the red dress on
Poor Otis, dead and gone
- The Doors, “Runnin’ Blue” (1969)
That was Jim Morrison’s crass eulogy for Otis Redding, recorded about a year after Redding died in 1967. It introduced one of the weakest songs on one of the Doors’ weakest albums—not much of a legacy for “Poor Otis.” Thankfully, the Doors were not the only ones to memorialize Redding in song. His protégé Arthur Conley recorded “Otis, Sleep On,” which rhymes “heaven” and “Redding” in its opening couplet. Wilson Pickett re-wrote Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” as “Cole, Cooke and Redding,” casting Otis in the JFK role. But the Doors’ homage stands out for its sheer presumption, as though Redding had named them his musical executors. I recognize this same presumption in myself at this moment, as I appoint myself the one left here to sing the song of Otis Blue. John Milton, writing of Shakespeare in 1630, asked why there should be any stone or marble monument for him: “What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?” Otis Redding, too, needs not the Doors’ weak witness or my own. Still, Milton wrote his poem, and I will have my unnecessary say as well.
There are more than ten Otis Redding LPs in my collection, but Otis Blue is not one of them. That’s not for lack of trying on my part. When I was discovering soul music in 1979, all of Redding’s original releases had been deleted from the catalog. Only two compilations were in print, but hearing those convinced me I needed to own the rest. I managed to secure used copies of many of his albums, but Otis Blue never turned up. This platter’s elusiveness was particularly frustrating since Paul Gambaccini’s Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums (1978) identified it as Redding’s best: #23 out of 200. The Immortal Otis Redding was at #33, and had the two Redding factions formed a single voting bloc, he might have risen even higher on the list. (That book’s canonization of Otis Blue, I suspect, is responsible for its exalted position on the Rolling Stone 500.) Fortunately, nine of the eleven songs on Otis Blue were also on the two-LP Best of Otis Redding (1972), so I got most of its contents indirectly. Now, of course, Otis Blue can be had instantly via Spotify, or in a deluxe CD reissue, or even, for about $250 on eBay, in its original format as Volt Records S-412 (condition: Excellent).
Otis Blue would be lovely to own, but it is not Redding’s best album. That honor, surely, goes to The History of Otis Redding, a flawless compilation of singles released just prior to his death (and thus prior to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”). Otis Blue, Redding’s third LP, was his finest to date, however, and it does include two of his greatest songs: his original, pulsating version of “Respect” and the searing ballad “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Aretha Franklin, incidentally, tried her hand at the second of these songs as well, but that cover would not have led Redding to say (as he reportedly did of her “Respect”), “that girl done stole my song.” The Rolling Stones also covered “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” but no one—not even Jerry Butler, who co-wrote it—could take this song from Redding. Redding’s fifth album was called The Dictionary of Soul, and the liner notes to Otis Blue also venture a definition of that term (“an intensely dramatic performance by a singer, projected with such feeling that it reaches out and visibly moves the listener”), but one could simply offer “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” as Exhibit A and leave it at that. It is the archetypal soul ballad, and its alternation between power and vulnerability is endlessly fascinating and moving, most notably on the way Redding slowly glides up to a high A on “You are tiiiiiiired,” lingering on a dissonant G# against the tonic while he decrescendos at the same time. Jagger’s falsetto version sounds embarrassingly feeble in comparison. Aretha wisely does something different entirely at that point in the song, knowing she could not improve upon perfection.
Mention of the Rolling Stones here may seem impertinent, but their rise and Redding’s were intertwined. They were very early adopters of his music, recording “Pain in My Heart” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” in addition to “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” all in 1965. Redding returned the favor on Otis Blue with a rollicking version of “Satisfaction.” Redding recorded the song only a couple of months after the Stones did, and his version is a blistering rave-up that runs roughshod over the original lyrics. He would take a similar approach to “Day Tripper” the following year.
In fact, it turns out that most of Otis Blue is covers. Along with “Satisfaction,” Redding offers his versions of songs by Solomon Burke (“Down in the Valley”), William Bell (“You Don’t Miss Your Water”), B. B. King (“Rock Me Baby”), and the Temptations (“My Girl”). In addition, he included no fewer than three songs by Sam Cooke: “Shake,” “Wonderful World,” and “A Change is Gonna Come.” Cooke had been shot to death six months earlier, and Redding was perhaps feeling that Cooke had left him here to sing his songs. This was not mere opportunism, however; he had already included songs by Cooke on each of his first two albums. The homage was heartfelt, and Redding’s gruffness adds a distinctive edge to Cooke’s smooth facility. Still, “Otis Sings Sam” is not a foolproof formula. “Shake” works well, perhaps because its lyrics are fairly trivial (e.g., “Ding-a-ling-a-ling / Honey, shaking is the latest thing”). On “Wonderful World,” however, Redding’s frequent interpolations add little (“I don’t know much about my history” spoils the original’s spare opening), and on “A Change is Gonna Come,” Redding robs the song of some its bite. Not only does he omit the anti-segregation verse (“I go to the movie, and I go downtown / But somebody keep tellin’ me, don’t hang around”), he also rewrites Cooke’s bitter bridge:
Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees
becomes the less confrontational, more sentimental
There’s a time, I would go to my brother
I’ve asked my brother, “will you help me please?”
He turned me down, and then I asked my little mother
I said, “Mother…,” I said, “Mother, I’m down on my knees!”
As a teenager I preferred the unvarnished, impassioned singing of Otis and Aretha to the more restrained, string-laden style of Sam Cooke, but now I think I was partly deceived by surfaces.
Speaking of surfaces, Otis Blue is a great title. One wonders why the label felt the need to add the bet-hedging subtitle, Otis Redding Sings Soul. Evidently “soul” was a selling point they wanted to emphasize. His previous LP had been Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads, and his next one would be The Soul Album. “Otis Blue,” in contrast, hearkens back to Ray Charles’s brilliant The Genius Sings the Blues (1961) and perhaps even to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959). Blues, however, even kind-of blues, was not what young, African American record-buyers were purchasing in the mid-sixties, and with the exception of “Rock Me Baby” Otis Blue does explicitly not lay claim to the blues tradition. Then again, neither does Joni Mitchell’s Blue (1971). There’s not a 12-bar blues or AAB verse to be found there, but that album, like its cover art, is saturated in blue. And if you are fortunate enough to own both Blue and Otis Blue, you might notice that the heavy-lidded blonde women on their covers look remarkably similar.